This Sunday is the 15th anniversary of one of the most curious entries in the entire hip-hop canon. KRS-ONE’s Gospel album Spiritual Minded, was one of those albums fans wouldn’t believe existed until it hit store shelves in January 2002, and still struggle with it to this day. It may have the widest ratio of people who have an opinion on it versus people who’ve actually heard it. It was a strange time for Kris, a strange time for hip-hop and really a strange time for America. Hearing it now 15 years later, it’s a little easier to move past the shock value of its mere existence. Now that we’re less blinded, this is Spiritual Minded.
At the turn of the century, it was hard to be a KRS fan. Despite a stellar posse cut single in “5 Boroughs,” his final album for Jive, 1999’s Maximum Strength, wound up being permanently shelved. We hadn’t gotten a proper release from the man in years, until his 2001 debut for Koch Records, Sneak Attack. This was early in Koch’s tenure of providing a home for veteran artists to have freedom, and the years between proper KRS albums made it feel turning to a new chapter in a book after a few pages we didn’t get to read were torn out. Released only as a censored clean version, something just wasn’t right.
While 2002 is best remembered by KRS-ONE fans as the year he had a very public feud with Nelly, including the two trading disses over a series of records, it’s crazy that Kris began the year with his second Koch release, a self-professed Gospel Hip-Hop album. One that had the balls to channel the name of his classic debut with Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded. While early critiques pointed allegations of hypocrisy at the Blastmaster, revisiting tracks like 1992’s “Poisonous Products” where Kris rhymes “Christians be saying 'Accept Jesus in your life’/ Christianity was founded 400 years after Christ / What do you accept in your life? / Christianity? Or the teachings of Christ?”, it’s a little bit clearer that Kris’ beef had always been with the bureaucracy of organized religion, rather than the teachings of Jesus Christ himself.
So Spiritual Minded exists. It’s January 2002, you pop the compact disc in your computer tower or portable discman, and you hear this:
“Lord Live Within My Heart” is something of a microcosm of Spiritual Minded trying to figure itself out. A distinctly glossy 2002 production with a sung Gospel hook between KRS verses peppered with old school early hip-hop references. It’s kind of jarring to first hear, with Kris’ performance sounding like it could appear on just about any album of his catalog, and a hook sounding like the track accidentally picked up the recording of someone listening to a different song in the studio. It gives us more questions than answers, but it’s only track two, so we still have a ways to go.
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Spiritual Minded was released a decade before KRS’ own penned 800 page Gospel of Hip-Hop book where he attempted to establish hip-hop as its own religion, so at this point he was merely an MC who was well read in a number of different religious customs to draw from over the course of the 20 tracks. While he hesitates to draw a specific framework about how he perceives God, nodding to several different perceptions of an almighty, it’s interesting to hear him pepper very specific aspects, like the Jehovah’s Witness concept of death as sleep, between fairly universal tenants of guidance.
With KRS being “The Teacha,” and this being a Gospel album, it does get into some heavy-handed preaching points, which I wholly believe was Kris’ intent. “Take Your Tyme” is a very specific track targeted at young women and how Kris believes they are to conduct themselves. It’s probably the most 15-years-ago track of the bunch conceptually, but does solidify exactly what type of Gospel Hip-Hop album this is: a committed one. While he’s primarily concerned with exposing the evils of materialism and mainstream news and entertainment outlets, each song does find some way for KRS to connect the subject matter to God. While some are more tangential than others, it’s a concept album that really (surprisingly) doesn’t really have an outlier, even on the more-self-aware tracks where KRS discusses the plight of being a conscious rapper or “Tears” which was among the very first songs by established rappers to acknowledge 9/11.
The strongest track on the record is “Trust.” Over a lush production, KRS busts a flow out he’s never really used before and follows both the beat and the concept to something downright fresh and inspiring. It’s really, really good. So much so that, if you were making a career spanning KRS retrospective, this would be a solid choice for a later track to include. Say what you will about KRS-ONE’s career, his outspokenness, his stances on particular controversial issues, but his work ethic can’t be denied. When you consider his career 10th album was a one-off Gospel Hip-Hop album done solely for the fact that he wanted to do a Gospel Hip-Hop album (which even boasts a Fat Joe verse), that’s just the type of tenacity you have to admire.